Lake Macquarie History

Lake Macquarie Park, known as Speers Point Park

A brief history. Research by Dulcie Hartley

Aboriginal Heritage

Prior to European intervention the shores of Lake Macquarie were populated by the Awabakal people. Little information exists directly relating to Awabakal activity at Speers Point Park, however, what is known indicates that the five islands and Speers Point Park area at the mouth of Cockle Creek was a favoured meeting and gathering point for the tribes.

photo: speers point park

Stories speak of neighbouring tribes travelling down Cockle Creek to the shores of Lake Macquarie where they would light fires using the smoke columns to announce their arrival. In 1896 a collection of weapons and tools were unearthed by a park visitor providing evidence of Aboriginal activity in the park area. It is likely that the attractions that drew hoards of visitors to the park area after European settlement had the same appeal to the original inhabitants, as is the case with many sites of significance.

European settlement

In 1839 William Brooks received a grant of 1280 acres at Reid's Mistake (Lake Macquarie) and he named his property `Lochend', as it embraced the northern extremity of the Lake. In 1870 the property was purchased by William Spiers, a wealthy Sydney businessman, who erected a holiday home on the Main Road at Boolaroo north of the present Council building. The 'Miners' Advocate' of 10 June 1874, mentioned that

"the Spiers' homestead on a rising hill, was conspicuous and commands an excellent view of the surrounding country. About one quarter of a mile from the home are several orange trees, and the remains of what was once a fine orchard."

The estate was managed by a man named Ryan whose home was near that of Mr Spiers. Mr. Ryan was the only permanent resident in the area. At this time there were half a dozen yachts moored at the point belonging to Newcastle and Wallsend residents. Around this time people from the mining townships of Newcastle and Wallsend began to spend recreational time at the lake, sailing down Cockle Creek to set up camps on the flat land which was to become known as Speers Point. This led to agitation by Wallsend residents to pressure the government to acquire the land for public recreation. Local members of parliament, James Fletcher and Mr. Melville, along with Mr. Thomas Abel, inspected the land. The idea was strongly resisted by Spiers, who on one occasion kicked over the billy of the official party informed them they were trespassing ordered them off his property. This incensed the worthy members who proceeded with renewed vigour in their efforts to gain the land for a public reserve.

Early parklands

Finally, 20 acres and 2 roods (8.7 hectares) was purchased by the government from Mr. Spiers, and this was gazetted on 25 May 1887 as 'Lake Macquarie Park'. The park was officially opened on 22 May 1888, with great fanfare. Mr Abel who had been appointed Chairman of a Board of Trustees established to care for Park , described it as 'this beautiful site with a magnificent view', and forecast that the Park would 'undoubtedly become the favourite pleasure resort of the district.' Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Melville, wives of MLA's, planted trees. Although gazetted 'Lake Macquarie Park', it was to have been called 'Fletcher Park' after the popular MLA James Fletcher. In defiance of this, the rebel mining communities always referred to it as 'Speers Point Park', and later on, affectionately as Speerses' From 1887-1911 the Park was controlled by a Trust consisting of E. and T. Abel, A. Cook, D. Walker, T. Bousefield, J. Simpson, W.Bower, T. McRae, J. Bower and W. Morris.

Ferry Services

In 1887 Mr. W.W. Johnson commenced a Steam Ferry Service from a Wharf near Cockle Creek Railway Station, setting down at Speers Point, Toronto, Belmont and other parts of the Lake. Later the service was extended to Miller's Wharf on Brush Creek at Young Wallsend (Edgeworth). A hinged funnel was fitted to the ferries to enable them to pass under the railway bridge at Cockle Creek and later Watkins Bridge at Boolaroo. Toronto Hotel, built in 1887, was a favourite venue with excellent dining facilities for these most popular ferry excursions. In the early days the road from Cockle Creek Station was described as 'a quagmire, unfit for any horse or vehicle and impassable on foot', so patronage of Mr. Johnson's ferries was assured.

Improvements

In 1890 a most elaborate and comprehensive landscape plan, commissioned by the Trustees, was prepared by Alfred Sharp. Sharp, a deaf mute, was an architect, artist and landscape artist who was responsible for planting many trees around Newcastle. He had completed extensive landscaping of King Edward Park. The area was quickly developed and many exotic trees were introduced, including Norfolk Island pines, London planes and camphor laurels. These, together with the native casuarinas, gave the park its distinctive old world charm and also provided shade and protection. Unfortunately vandals wreaked havoc in 1893 when they destroyed some of the young trees. At this time arrangements were made to construct a 'horse and vehicle yard' at the rear of the new shelter shed. The Trustees were not allowed to charge for the use of the Park and the only income was derived from a £25 government grant. The initial grant in 1894 had been spent employing a man to weed the Park, and in this year improvements were made to the road. At a meeting of the Wallsend and Plattsburg Regatta Club held in February 1899, it was decided that a deputation should interview the Trustees of Lake Macquarie Park requesting the provision of a short wharf or jetty and a 'bathing place where mixed bathing could be indulged in'. The following year swimming baths were provided, although it was to be another two years before a grant of £100 was provided for a dressing shed 'of sorts'. A contemporary newspaper account mentioned that bathers 'might just as well undress in the open as use this corrugated iron building with its inadequate partition. Another comment was that 'to say the least of it (the dressing shed) was in bad taste'. After two years of agitation, hooks for clothing were provided, but times were bad and within two days they were all stolen. Mr. Williams Speers Point Hotel (on site of present Pippy's Hotel), erected in 1901, contained twenty six rooms, and was at one time situated on 5 acres of land. In 1903 he erected a Dance Hall next to the Hotel which was very popular with holiday makers, as well as the young people from the emerging suburbs of Boolaroo and Speers Point, as well as the older established Teralba. Mr. Williams was also a great supporter of the Annual Regatta.

Regattas

At the turn of the 20th century the Park was the most popular spot on Lake Macquarie and around Newcastle. It was referred to as the 'lungs' of the mining townships of Wallsend, Plattsburg, West Wallsend and Mimi. Camping was permitted and it was a common site to see the shores dotted with tents. A fresh water spring was located near the jetty, supplying the needs of the campers and visitors. As the road improved crowds arrived in horse drawn buses and drays for the Sailing and Sculling Regattas held each year on Anniversary Day, 26th January, the first having been held with Mr. Spiers' permission in January 1880.. At this time there were even horse races held in the Park. All traffic entering the Park had to pass through Mr. Spiers' sliprails, now the site of Lake Macquarie Council Administration Building. In 1904 the Annual Regatta saw 10,000 people and 'hundreds of horses and vehicles' in the Park, pointing to the need for additional land. Shortly after this an additional area was added to the Park. In 1905 there were complaints of horses swimming in the baths and of pigs roaring around the Park. However, horses and cattle were allowed to graze, horses at 7c per head and cattle at 5c per head.

Care of the park handed over to Lake Macquarie Shire Council

The first subdivision of Boolaroo was in 1896 and of Speers Point in 1902, when land at Speers Point sold for £90 per acre. In 1895 a move was made to extend the railway from Cockle Creek, but this did not eventuate. The population of the area was now increasing and the State Government in 1906 appointed a temporary council which held its first meeting on 15 June 1906. In December of 1906 an election was held and an elected Council instituted. In 1910 the Lake Macquarie Shire Council held a conference with the Trustees and representatives of Wallsend and Plattsburg Councils (in whom care of Speers Point Park had been vested) and on 15 October 1910 it was transferred to the Lake Macquarie Shire Council. The official handing over ceremony was 25 November 1911, when it was mentioned that 'trams were on the way'. On this day a large pavilion was opened and the official party were entertained aboard the Phoenix steam ferry. It was - during this time that Spiers (sometimes Spears) Point Park became 'Speers Point Park'. Mention is made at this time of up to 600 people camped in the Park for up to six weeks during the Christmas vacation.

Steam trams

In 1910 when the steam tram line was opened between Plattsburg and West Wallsend the Council was already negotiating with the Minister of Public Works for extension of the tramway from Brush Creek at Young Wallsend to Speers Point, with an expected outlay of £19,470 for the 3 and a quarter mile of line. This was completed in 1912 when the Minister for Mines, Mr. A. Edden, opened the branch line by cutting a ribbon in front of the Speers Point Hotel. The Tram Service operated on a one and a half hourly timetable to Newcastle, with the journey taking one and a half hours each way. Competition later came from a private bus operator who competed with the steam trams by running a bus service from Newcastle through Cardiff which was much quicker and eventually forced the trams out of business. The last regular steam tram ran on 1 November 1930, although some special holiday services continued until 8 May 1931. The improved transport led to even greater popularity of the Park, which now contained swimming baths, jetty, band rotunda, pavilion and picnic tables.

Five Islands Bridges

In 1916 a start was made on joining the Park to the Five Islands at the delta of Cockle Creek, but lack of finance saw the cessation of this work. Around this time, a wooden footbridge was erected over Cockle Creek by local entrepreneur 'Fisho' Jack Richardson, and combined with other footbridges, formed pedestrian access across the islands linking with Teralba. These bridges became known as the Five Islands bridges, and the islands were added to the Park with picnic facilities being erected on the larger one.

Camping

In 1917 during the Christmas vacation period there was a 'small canvas town' in the Park, but sanitary arrangements were rudimentary, resulting in an allocation of funds from Council for much needed improvements. In 1890 Mr Thomas Abel had predicted that it would become 'the most popular Park in the district' and this indeed had occurred. By 1925 the Boolaroo and District Sulphide Brass Band under Bandmaster J. Arthur played regularly in the Rotunda on Sunday afternoons. It was during these years that the Park reached its peak of popularity. Private motor cars were becoming numerous and many people from the inner suburbs made the trip out to Speers's for a Sunday afternoon outing. On 13 May 1938 Council bought and filled low lying swampy land adjoining the park. In 1938 an additional 71 acres, of mostly swamp lands, were purchased and filled. Land reclamation continued through its use as a rubbish dump, mainly in the area of the current sporting fields.

Decline

The depression saw the end of the picnics and the park slowly deteriorated over the years. During World War II a Unit of the AIF occupied the Park which resulted in a deleterious effect on vegetation. In 1975 Lake Macquarie Council commissioned De Leuw, Cather of Australia Pty. Ltd.), to carry out a study to upgrade the parks recreational facilities. Recommendations included extension of facilities to the existing Sailing Club area and the establishment of a boating complex at Cockle Creek for power boating, as well as boat storage facilities. The central toilet facilities, the boat launching area and new car parking facilities were all developed from recommendations made in the resulting masterplan. At this time the park also reverted to it's original name of Lake Macquarie Park, and the Kiosk with attached caretaker's cottage and the old dressing sheds were demolished, as was the band rotunda. The shady avenue of trees were removed to allow for road works and many of the picnic tables and pavilions were also removed.

Recent History

Between 1975 and today Speers Point Park has under-gone some minor improvements and upgrades and remains a very popular location for picnicing,

Variety playground

In 2006 Lake Macquarie City Council commissioned architects to design a city scale all abilities playground as part of park facilities.The playground was the first of its kind for the region and was designed to cater for a diverse range of ages and abilities. The playground is located off the Park Rd entry and is situated between the playing fields and main picnic area. It is accessible from all areas of the park and is close to all accessible amenities and disable carparking. The first stage of the playground opened in June 2008.

Excerpt from A walk by the Lake: reminiscences of Gwen Stevens (nee Probert). Typewritten manuscript held by Lake Macquarie City Library

"My father told me of the steam trams, that used to run from Wallsend to Speer's Point. Families came to enjoy a leisurely outing. A picnic in the Park, swim in the baths, stroll along the foreshore or listen to the Brass Band in the Rotunda. Miners and their families from the coal fields would spent the entire Christmas holidays camping at Speer's Point Camping Reserve. The Ambulance Committee held a Fund Raising Carnival which was well patronised during these lovely summer evenings. There was always a picnic in the Park. A Concert in the Hall. I would hear a Hush in the Hall, as I played out side, then I could hear the beautiful Silver strains of my Grandfathers Tenor voice. My daddy used to walk with me, holding my hand, to the football field, behind the pub. I loved these walks around the waterfront."